Memoir: Where Did Our Friendship Go Wrong?

Chalk it up to bad judgment, a momentary lapse that was punished by total rejection. The story of how a painful rift helped one woman become a better friend

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
jacquelyn mitchard image
The writer at her former home in Wisconsin with her ever-loyal friend Hobbes
Photograph: © James Schnepf

In therapy I confronted some hard suspicions—about myself. With my other friends, was I more often the one who made the call or the one who returned it? As we exchanged news, did I listen first, and listen well, no matter how much my own update quivered on the tip of my tongue? Was I the one to postpone the coffee date because my life was too busy? Not always, but too often, the answers were uncomfortable.

I wasn’t being the friend I wanted to have.

And, really, neither was Liz.

Admitting this was like losing her all over again. Still, it’s a fact. One of the essentials of any great friendship is the ability to idealize the cherished one, to overlook most of her flaws, to shrug off most of her idiosyncrasies, unless they’re genuinely toxic. For Liz, I had done that. I’d overlooked her inflexibility and stubbornness, and the tiniest tendency to save her best china, literally and figuratively, for people she wanted to impress more. She had not been so understanding with me. Two bursts of temper and a bout of tears, earnestly repented, should not tip the scales of a friendship marked by so many joys. It wasn’t as though I scorched out every week at Liz, or even every year.
There was also the matter of balance. Even factoring in Liz’s need for tranquillity (six times a month, she spends a day in prayer and meditation, ignoring the phone), I always believed that a portion of Liz’s time was enough for me. But it wasn’t . . . not really. I do know that friendships aren’t always truly mutual. In some, one person offers the kiss; the other offers the cheek. Most often I was the one who asked, and Liz the one who agreed. She only occasionally sought me out. That in itself didn’t bother me very much. I’m no extrovert, and as an actor, Liz was always the center of a circle of admirers. That she wanted me at all made me feel worthy. But that prompted the question, Why did being without her make me feel not just sad but like an outcast? Wasn’t it her loss, too?

How willing I was—and not just with Liz—to first lash out absurdly if I felt wronged and then to feel overly culpable. Righteous indignation lasted about a day, and then guilt took over. I now realized, however, that after a point, even if I did the wrong thing, I had to stop beating myself up, as long as I hadn’t committed outright betrayal or actual harm. It really does take two to end something. For Liz and me, there was blame to share. I should never have lost my temper and had those shameful tantrums. Still, nearly 20 years of supportive love and lyric memories deserved, if not lavish forgiveness, more than a kiss-off letter.

This year has changed the landscape of friendship for me.
The cliché about being sadder but wiser is a cliché for a reason.
Of course I turned to my other friends, panicky, nearly ashamed of my need. I did not want to lose them. To my surprise, they welcomed me, happy to have more of my time. And I gave it, but with a difference.

Finding out how important I really wasn’t to someone who meant the world to me made me examine why that was true.
I tend my friendships better now. I listen more and gently probe beneath the surface of things. More often, I remember the occasion or make the date, even though the timing may be less than convenient. Friendship isn’t convenient. People don’t know by telepathy that you care, and you can’t keep them suspended in time until you’re ready. So I make dates rather than mere promises. At first, yes, I had to force myself. My link to Liz had made me smug; I always had the world’s most charming pal in my back pocket. But although it might seem that doing something artificially makes it less than genuine, that’s not the case. It’s like regular exercise: At first you have to remind yourself; after a while, it feels essential.

First published in the July/August 2012 issue

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Comments

Maricia Johns07.15.2012

Hello, I loved the article and in fact wrote about it on my blog. Take a look.
http://thisisyourbestyear.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/friendships-lost/

Marie 07.06.2012

This article really hit home, as I recently ended a 20+ year friendship. But I was on the other side of the fence - I was the one who walked away. My friend had been through tough times, financially, maritally, emotionally, and I'd stood by her. Yet for several years I'd had an increasingly uneasy feeling when I saw or talked to her. The worse things became in her life, the more she put down others, and the more she insisted she 'deserved' things like a trip to Italy and a luxury car, when she hadn't even been able to pay her property taxes in a year. She took that trip and bought numerous items she could not afford, then cried to me that she didn't have the money to take her cat to the vet or to fix her washing machine. Annoying, but we'd been through so much, I didn't speak up. Then she did the unforgiveable - in an email. Her son had gone on a campus visit to the college my son attends. Her email explained, in most insulting terms, that the school was just not good enough for her child. (I think the exact words were "He saw so many kids who could have been cast on Jersey Shore. Now he knows why Snooki spoke there.") That was the last straw. I never replied to her email, and I never called her again. I don't wish her any ill will, I just don't need someone like that in my life any longer. It took a few months for her to realize she was no longer a part of my life. She invited me to her son's graduation party (I declined) and called a month later to ask a favor (I declined). I never gave an explanation - I didn't feel obligated to do so. She had violated our friendship so thoroughly, there was no turning back. So I hope that my friend learned the same lesson as Ms. Mitchard. To keep a friend you need to be a true fried.

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